Today is Thursday. That means Club Foot Clinic. And since my objective is to work myself out of a job, I haven't actually put a plaster cast on a baby in two months; today was no exception. I busied myself with some paperwork, and started to update our patients' charts.
At one point, I reached for my stapler . . . it was empty. So I walked to B-Ward, the nurses' station for our medical and pediatric patients, fully intending to steal a few staples from the drawer and be on my way back to the therapy office.
But, as I've come to learn, living in Niger, interruptions are important.
And today, when I thought I went to get staples, I was interrupted by profound grief.
Standing in the doorway, I reached forward onto the nurses' desk for a small block of silver staples. As I opened the red stapler to slide them inside, I noticed a tall skinnier-than-normal-for-her-frame young woman. Her face peaked out of the baby-blue hijab that covered her beyond her waist.
I blinked at her. She stared back at me.
In that split second, a nurse snapped at her in aggressive Hausa. Her eyes filled with tears, but she could not move.
The nurse snapped again. This time, she looked away from me, but stared at an invisible spot on the wall.
She was told to move out of my way and a new location was pointed out to her.
I leaned in to the nurse sitting at the desk beside me, 'What's going on?' I asked in French.
'Her baby's dead,' the nurse stated.
'When?' I asked.
'Now,' she said.
I looked at this young childless mother. Her broken heart filled the room.
'We'll be right back,' I announced to the nurses as I took her hand and, in Hausa, softly asked her to come with me.
I led her through the hallway to the empty room across from my office. I asked the pastor that does the counseling with the families of our Club Foot patients to come and pray with her.
Before we prayed together, he spoke with her.
Her name is R. Her son was two and a half. He was her only child. Her husband died a few weeks ago, and she lost her mother only a few days ago. She comes from a village in the northern part of the country that borders Niger to the south . . . it's not far, but far enough.
R. tried to answer his questions as best she could, but she was still in shock.
The pastor began to pray in Hausa.
As we listened to his words, she broke.
R. began to sob. She tried not to, but the well was too deep. As I knelt on the floor with my arm around her, I cried with her. I wanted to tell her that my heart hurt with her's . . . that I was aching with her . . . but my language failed me.
When the prayer was finished, I brought her back to the nurses' station. 'Go to the Camel Window,' she was ordered. R. was too overcome to understand what that meant.
I put my arm around her waist and led her back out into the ward. 'We'll go together' I whispered. As we made our way to the Outpatient Department, we passed one of the hospital's evangelists. He stood as he saw us approach. 'This woman has just lost her only child. And her husband and mother have died recently too.'
Without asking, the gentle old man turned and signaled that we follow him. He took us to a quiet room where he softly prayed with her again. As he read to her from the Bible, tears ran down our cheeks. In a culture that would reprimand her for expressing her grief, she had found a safe place where she could cry with freedom.
But she couldn't stay forever.
We finally made our way through all the business stops and were sent back to the nurses' station. There we handed back her last written record of her son and she was shooed away to gather his body and the few possessions she had brought with her.
We walked into the pediatric ward together. The other mothers were silent as she pulled back the hand-embroidered sheet she had wrapped him in.
Little O. laid lifeless on the plastic mattress.
His sphincter had relaxed when he died and he was now covered with diarrhea.
R. stared at her son. The mother of the boy in the bed next to Little O.'s stood and came by her side. She gently instructed R. what do. R. pulled another piece of cloth from a small black plastic bag and began to clean Little O.'s body.
But then she stopped. She couldn't continue.
'Help her!' a voice whispered in my head. But I couldn't. It took everything in me to hold the pieces of my soul together at that moment. I couldn't budge. I was frozen in the shock of what this mother was being forced to do.
The neighboring Mama stepped in. She took the cloth from R. and cleaned up the baby who was not hers.
She gave R. more instructions. A larger piece of fabric was produced from the same bag. R. tied it around her waist, turned her back to her son and bent over.
The neighbor-Mama lifted Little O. from his bed.
He hung there lifeless.
Neighbor-Mama rested him on his mother's back, then she lifted each leg to wrap around his mother's sides.
I couldn't hold back the tears any longer.
As they ran from my eyes, my heart ached for this woman I had known for half an hour. It hurt to wonder if she would get home before the bundle on her back grew unnaturally cold. How does a mother carry a dead son in a taxi? How does she go on?
With Little O. secured to her, she stood, grabbing the bag of her belongings, and turned toward the door. I could barely see out of my blurry eyes, but I followed her.
As Neighbor-Mama took her to find a taxi, a few nurses saw me and called to me, 'Déborah, you can't go with her!' I hesitated for a moment, trying to process what they were telling me.
In those few seconds, R. was on the other side of the hospital gate. She turned to look at me, and I knew they were right . . . I couldn't go with her. Our grieving together was to end there.
Our eyes spoke what our tongues could not. 'I am hurting with you,' mine said. 'Thank you,' hers answered. I lifted my hand to wave, as she lifted hers.
Then she was gone. Lost in the cluster of bushtaxis and young boys selling water bags.